Image: Dustin Saunders
Ann Heisenfelt  /  AP
Dustin Saunders, aka Captain Awesome, readies his electric car, "Bob," for another Galactic Pizza delivery.
updated 5/3/2007 1:41:14 PM ET 2007-05-03T17:41:14

Captain Awesome is driving Bob tonight.

Let’s break that down: Dustin Saunders, a delivery guy for Galactic Pizza who dresses for the job in a blue superhero suit complete with red cape and boots, is ferrying pies around south Minneapolis in an electric-powered three-wheeled vehicle that’s been dubbed “Bob.” Other members of the fleet are called “Frank” and “Les.”

If it all sounds slightly ridiculous, that’s Galactic Pizza. This is an establishment that recently sponsored “Richard Simmons Day” (”50 percent off everything if you dress like Richard Simmons”) and also features a “4:20 Special” in a sly nod to the cannabis devotees who make up a large slice of the delivery pizza market. (The number 420 is a slang reference to marijuana.)

But the irreverent approach masks a seriousness of purpose at Galactic Pizza, where the electric delivery cars are just one part of what its owner calls a “values-led company.” Galactic Pizza emphasizes environmental sustainability and protection in its business practices, uses organic and locally grown ingredients when possible, and donates a small portion of its profit to hunger relief and other charities.

“I wanted to do good for people, I wanted to not, at the very least, be a burden on society and try to even contribute to it,” said Pete Bonahoom, Galactic Pizza’s 29-year-old owner.

Bonahoom’s not alone — more small business owners are finding ways to achieve social good through their practices.

“The entrepreneurs will say, how can I solve this problem now and make money doing it?” said Byron Kennard, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Small Business and the Environment, which advocates green business practices.

In Manhattan, Maury Rubin has opened two locations of the Birdbath Bakery, a green bakery. Walls are made from wheat and sunflower seeds, the floors are made of cork and the staff wears hemp-and-linen jackets.

“As a business owner and a human being at a time when the world seems to be falling to pieces, I want to do my part,” said Rubin.

Even as a college student, Bonahoom said he was spending a lot of time “thinking about how we can transform capitalism into something that can be an engine for good and not just creating waste.” After graduation he got a job with a large financial services company, where he analyzed 401(k) plans and quickly grew miserable.

“Everyone was just there to make a paycheck and the ultimate goal of our job was to take in rich clients and make sure they stayed rich,” Bonahoom said.

Bonahoom had worked at pizza joints in high school and college, and thought it a good venue for his goals. “With pizza, you need to have a crust and some cheese, and from there you can be as creative as possible,” he said.

Some of the silly ideas were already in his head, like the superhero costumes. In addition to Captain Awesome, Galactic Pizza’s stable of delivery heroes includes Shark Girl, Luke Pierocker (rhymes with “Skywalker”), Italian Scallion and the Veggie Avenger.

He staffed the delivery jobs with fellow travelers like Saunders, who’s 22 and — believe it or not — was called Captain Awesome before he ever started dressing up as a superhero.

“I used to play guitar at this cafe on Cape Cod,” Saunders said. “And there was this European dude there who started calling me ’Captain Awesome.”’

Most customers who order Galactic know the place — it’s been in business three years — and expect a superhero to show up at the door.

“It’s always a wonderful treat,” said Alita Shenk, as Captain Awesome handed over her order on a recent Friday night.   “A lot of it now is people wanting to show their friends,” Saunders said. “Then there’s the people who laugh hysterically, which is fun. And every once in a while I still get someone who just picked us out of the phone book and has no idea. Those are my favorite.”

Saunders relishes the role. He greets each customer with his hand cocked on his hip and an exclamation along the lines of, “I’m Captain Awesome, and I’m here with your pizza.” He said he loves delivering to homes with kids.

But he’s also proud to work for a business that’s trying to do right.

“It’s good karma,” Saunders said.

Besides the electric cars, Galactic Pizza participates in an Xcel Energy program that allows customers to purchase all their energy from renewable wind power. Its mozzarella cheese comes from cows not treated by growth hormones, and hemp is used both as an ingredient in some pizzas as well as in the paper for menus. Most of the restaurant’s packaging material is recyclable or biodegradable, and its food waste is recycled at pig farms.

Bonahoom said some of those steps cost more than traditional business practices, but he’s covered the difference by severely limiting his advertising budget.

“All the money that typical businesses spend trying to create a superficial relationship, we use to create ideas that are good for people and will make them want to come back here,” Bonahoom said.

Bob Smith, owner of Mad River Brewing Company in Blue Lake, Calif., said his business has earned good publicity by reducing its waste output by 98 percent, donating to charities and taking other socially conscious steps.

“What PR budget?” Smith said. “That is our PR budget.”

Bonahoom, who flips the dough himself most nights, said the business is profitable. “My banker loan guy keeps asking me when I’m opening another location, so that seems like a good sign,” Bonahoom said.

Bonahoom gives talks at business schools about his approach, and he’s glad to have Galactic Pizza serve as a model for other small business.

“If somebody looks at me and says, ’I want to do that,’ that’s great,” Bonahoom said. “If doing what I do influences someone else, then I can create a greater good just by having a pizza shop.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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